This article will focus on how to deal with the GI Bill process issues you may face. But, before I start, I want to make it clear I am not VA bashing. The VA accomplishes great things with limited funding, short staffing, and often antiquated systems.

When I started earning my degree, I encountered several frustrating “glitches.”  The issues were all related to process, policy, regulations, and simply bad data (bureaucracy). Each time, I came close to giving up, thankfully I didn’t.  Despite the bureaucratic glitches, I used the GI Bill to earn a BS in communications and management and eventually an MBA.

Glitch #1: The GI Bill Certificate of Eligibility

The first glitch or roadblock I ran into came early in the college admissions process. To set the stage; I was on active duty and was working in the base education services office, where I had been coaching others on how to use their GI Bill, so I already knew I was eligible before I started looking for a school.

The first step to using your GI Bill is request a certificate of eligibility. It is a relatively simple process. In my case I had submitted the eligibility request as I was also applying for admission to the college – technically the registrar submitted the request for me.

It took approximately 30 days for the response (as expected), but the VA’s response caught me by surprise. Despite having submitted all the required documentation, I received a letter from the VA stating that my eligibility couldn’t be determined and that I needed to submit the proper documentation – which, as I pointed out, had already been done.

Since I had experience with the Department of Veterans Affairs in the past, I assumed that the letter was some sort of canned response.

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Turns out it was a glitch. I received my certification before I re-submitted the documents they asked for (about two weeks later). That made it about 45 days since we submitted the application. I was well into the first semester and I was a bit stressed about how the school’s business office and the registrar were taking the delay, since I was already taking classes.

Glitch #2: VA Approved Schools vs. VA Approved Degree Programs

The second challenge I encountered came a couple of months into the first semester. I was informed that despite the fact the school had several veterans enrolled and using the GI Bill, the degree program I had chosen was not “approved” for the GI Bill, so the VA would not pay for the classes I was taking.

RELATED: Verify Your Degree Program Is GI Bill Eligible

This is where I learned that the VA does not approve schools, they approve degree programs. I also learned that my program was brand new and had not been evaluated and authorized yet.

I need to spend a moment trying to explain without getting too far into the weeds. The process for approving a degree program starts with the State Authorizing Agency (SAA). Although the SAA is a state bureaucracy, the federal Dept. of Veterans Affairs relies on the SAA to evaluate the curriculum and ensure it meets the VA’s standards for use with the GI Bill.

This glitch was much more complicated.  It required the school registrar, a state official, and the VA to work together to solve. The process of coordinating private, state, and federal agencies to solve this issue for the sake of a single veteran (me) was not easy, but it went better than expected.

You can imagine how long it took to get that sorted out. Thankfully the school waived the tuition payments until the process was sorted out.  I was then able to continue taking classes. But that was not the last of the glitches I dealt with while earning my bachelor’s.

Glitch #3: Traditional Classes vs. Online Education Modules

This last glitch came up after I had completed my degree program. Simply put, the VA re-evaluated my account.  Then they determined that I had been under-charged for the classes I had taken.  As a result they took back a few months of my benefits.

As you may know, the GI Bill gives you 36 months of education benefits. Back in the day, the Montgomery GI Bill used a confusing process (call it fuzzy math) for determining how many months a student used when enrolled in non-traditional education courses – while on active duty.

Getting the accounting corrected required several phone calls, long waits on hold, and eventually learning how to file an appeal through the VA benefits claims process. The good news is that after months of frustration and endless paperwork, the VA  reinstated about six months of my benefits, which left me enough benefits to go after my MBA.

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Lessons Learned:

  1. Don’t let the inevitable bureaucratic glitches stop you. Had I given up at I would have never completed my degrees. The degrees I have earned open several doors for me.  They’ve enabled me to earn far more than I ever made as an enlisted service member.
  2. Learn the system and how to make it work for you. Because I understood the process; I didn’t accept the VA’s first rulings .  As a result, I was able to take advantage of the opportunities the GI Bill gave me. It really changed my life for the better.
  3. “Never give in, never, never, never–never”– or – “Stay Calm and Persevere” (you pick). Earning your degree is difficult, paying for it is nearly impossible without the GI Bill. Both take perseverance and tenacity – never give in.

Many of the glitches I faced were because the VA had not yet developed the process for online degree programs. Keep in mind that the VA had nearly 50 years of experience with tradition brick and mortar education.  When I started on my non-traditional path, the VA was still dealing with the online learning curve. The point is that at some point you will face your own glitches with the GI Bill process.  Don’t let it trip you up.

 

NEXT STEP: Importance of GI Bill Eligibility Certification

 

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Personal stories from our Education Benefits author, Terry Howell.

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